Change Alley

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Eat Food

with 7 comments

Channel 4’s food season ‘Big Food Fight’ is about to start its second week. I’ve deliberately avoided most of the programs so far, because I know a lot of this stuff already and frankly I just get upset by yet more gory details about factory farming. Great bloke though Hugh Fearlessly-Eatsitall seems to be, I don’t need to sit through his faithful reconstruction of an intensive chicken farm. Although anyone who has cooked and eaten both roadkill and human placenta paté deserves our respect.

Be that as it may, last Thursday I found myself watching ‘The Truth About Your Food’, a Dispatches documentary about the £5 billion UK market in premium foods and ready meals that claim to be healthy and nutritious. Three families were given different collections of ‘foods’ from which to assemble their regular diet: premium ‘healthy’ products, e.g. Sainsbury’s ‘Be Good To Yourself’ range; bargain basement equivalents; and I can’t honestly remember what the third, quite health-conscious, family had, it may have been business as usual. That must have made them the ‘control’, although that would imply a level of scientific rigour for the program that it didn’t really deserve.

Between domestic reaction shots (“Mmmm, this is…. quite nice”) and nutritionist talking heads, we learnt a few things.

  • Foods that claim to be good for you very often aren’t.
  • Premium-price healthy products are often no better for you than their cheaper cousins, and sometimes worse.
  • The various competing food labelling schemes are confusing and pretty much useless, since people who don’t have time to cook their own food tend not to have hours to spare to decypher the figures on the packet.
  • Breakfast cereals are full of salt and sugar.
  • Concentrated fruit juices are full of citric acid which is as bad for your teeth as fizzy drinks.

And so on. I know that by the end I was past caring what the ‘results’ of the ‘experiment’ were. Each family was shown piles of salt, sugar and fat equivalent to what they’d consumed while on their ‘diet’. The relative sizes don’t matter, they were all scarily large. The one thing I took away from the program was recurring nausea at the thought of yet another Tesco chicken tikka massala or Waitrose chicken filo parcel. Chicken seemed to crop up quite often as an ingredient. I wonder where it comes from. My mate Hugh could probably tell you.

A feeling gradually emerged from all this that what these people were being fed wasn’t really food at all, but what Michael Pollan would call “foodlike substances”. In his book ‘In Defence of Food: The Myth of Nutrition and the Pleasures of Eating’, he describes how our eating habits have been formed, manipulated and controlled by a “nutritional industrial complex”. We have moved away from traditional food cultures where what we eat and how we eat it was determined by family influence and local ingredients, to a complacent acceptance of interference in our diet by scientists, marketing and governments. While nutritional recommendations change regularly, the end result is still that “much of the nutritional advice we’ve received over the past fifty years has made us less healthy and much fatter”.

So, what to do? Pollan’s core message is that we should return to eating “real food”, and offers some recommendations on how to find it and get the most out of it. It’s a long list, here’s a few to give you a flavour:

  • Don’t eat anything that your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food. Going back several generations enables us to avoid the confusion of lengthy ingredient lists, most of which have dubious nutritional value and are included more for the food industry’s benefit than for ours.
  • Avoid food products that make health claims on the package. Anything with a package is more likely to be a processed than a whole food. And the whole issue of packaging and its environmental impact is another kettle of worms altogether.
  • Cook – and, if you can, plant a garden. Creating your own food chain, “from fork to fork” as Monty Don used to say, enables us to reclaim control from industry and science.

Pollan goes so far as to say that “cooking from scratch and growing our own food qualify as subversive acts”. This puts him firmly in the same camp as relocalisation groups such as Path To Freedom. It doesn’t matter how much or how little food you can grow yourself. If you can just grow some salad on a window-sill, that’s one less nitrogen-filled plastic bag of imported salad bought. After all, as Lao-Tzu said, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Extracts from Michael Pollan’s book ‘In Defence of Food’, including his full set of rules-of-thumb, are published on the Guardian’s web site.

Consuming passion’

‘How to get back to real food’


7 Responses

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  1. Good advice (except that my Great-Gran’s tastes are way too conservative for the likes of me ;)).

    Creating your own food chain, “from fork to fork” as Monty Don used to say, enables us to reclaim control from industry and science.

    Perilously close to Marx there. We are alienated from our own diets, and can only acheive nutritional liberation by reclaiming control of our, er, digestive capacity.
    However, unless you’re Sheherazade Goldsmith, it’s hard to take this idea beyond a fairly symbolic level. Growing your own cress on the windowsill might save a few quid (packaged salad is that dear, right?) and some pollution, but it’s never going to challenge the “nutritional industrial complex”.
    I’m very skeptical of the idea that small individualistic gestures can ever change the world.
    Now, what’s this scary little smiley that says it’s watching me?


    January 14, 2008 at 12:49 am

  2. Dave, considering you’re the revolutionary in waiting I’m mighty shocked that you proclaim you’re ‘very skeptical of the idea that small individualistic gestures can ever change the world.’ So what’s the big gesture then!?

    I think you need some ‘Soul man’ ; 🙂

    Pete, it’s an interesting series of programmes but I too tried watching the programme you reviewed and I also gave up on it because it seemed to be going nowhere fast.

    However, basic food can be good food. Veges and fish or meat (not pumped full of chemicals etc) or a vegetarian alternative like Indian food, pasta. Not really too complex.

    Maybe John ‘warm ale’ Major had it right with his ‘back to basics’ rant. 🙂


    January 16, 2008 at 3:50 pm

  3. That Guardian link there is excellent. Thanks.

    I watched a bit of the Food Fight show last night but my squeamish husband made me switch channels when they showed a cancerous bowel. Big baby. I’d rather see that than Top Gear!

    I hate it that we have come to rely on processed rubbish so much. Modern lifestyes!

    I have a vegetarian daughter who doesn’t like many vegetables. This has been a concern for me but I am getting my kitchen garden started ths year and if I involve her from the start, I am hoping she will enjoy the fruits of her labour as they say.


    January 17, 2008 at 12:59 pm

  4. Oh and I saw the little smiley watching me make my first comment but he isn’t here now. He must be busy watching you Dave. You do look a bit suspect. Lol.


    January 17, 2008 at 1:01 pm

  5. Pete, part of the article linked below is relevant to your post. It’s about the “Soul Man” being discussed in The Coffee House:


    January 17, 2008 at 1:24 pm

  6. considering you’re the revolutionary in waiting I’m mighty shocked that you proclaim you’re ‘very skeptical of the idea that small individualistic gestures can ever change the world.’ So what’s the big gesture then!?

    In mass collective efforts, of course. For example, you’re more likely to change the direction of farms/factories if you occupy them as workers than if you threaten to strike their produce from your individual shopping list. Even consumer based actions (boycotts etc) only have a chance when taken by many people acting in concert.

    (Smiley gone – I am victorious!)


    January 17, 2008 at 5:09 pm

  7. That sounds like a great idea, EP.


    January 17, 2008 at 5:12 pm

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